by chelsea schuyler
Why Does Nothing Eat Conifers?
Hungry? Why not satiate your pallet with the heavenly bitterness of the spiny, hostile conifer?
Because no one would ever do that. And neither would anything else with teeth or tastebuds or the desire to live. No self-respecting herbivore really goes near them. But evergreens are everywhere, how can nature ignore such a huge niche of available food?
Dinosaurs Ruin It For Everyone
Well, grandkids, it wasn’t always this way. Back when I was walking uphill both ways to school in the snow, dinosaurs were downing coniferous leaves like there was no tomorrow (which, arguably, there wasn’t). Why so many takers then and not now? Because back then:
1) There really wasn’t anything else to eat. Flowering plants did establish themselves during the dinosaurs’ reign, but not until the Cretaceous, the third and last section of the great dinosaur party 144 – 65mya, (the 1 – 4am rockers).
2) Conifers weren’t as full of hate and jaded bitterness in their culinary design. In other words, they probably tasted half decent.
So what happened? An evolutionary arms race. As dinosaurs spread, they ate more and more plants. Plant defense strategists, unable to physically avoid dinosaurs, tried anyway. They got taller and taller, trying to out-height their munchers, but those brachiosaur bitches just kept matching their step.
So instead of just physical avoidance, they added physical distaste. Harsh textures, painful thorns, and finally downright toxicity. They slowly developed an acidity to try and be outright disgusting.
By the time the big bad meteor blew the dinosaurs’ taxonomic house down, angiosperms (flowering plants) were everywhere. They were tastier and a lot easier to reach. With dinosaurs out of the picture, the evergreens had no godzillas to deal with.
As mammals took over, they had a long way to go to be even near big enough to benefit from a conifer.
When You Can’t Be Big
Okay, nature’s got an empty niche of giant, razor sharp, acid-filled conifers, what do you do? Remember children, what we learned from War of the Worlds (besides the gullibility of 1930s America). You are faced with giant, killer, alien mo-fos, what do you do? Military? Weapons? Giant hammer or other sizable construction? Nay. Bacteria. The tiny twist ending, ‘Twas bacteria killed the beast.’
(One could argue that King Kong suffered a similar fate, as love is similar to bacteria in that it gets under the skin, through to the heart, and causes seemingly unexplained behavioral changes).
But bacteria eats (or lives within) everything, so that’s not very satisfying. Surely something in our same domain (higher even than kingdom) can make use?
Indeed, when all else fails – The number one enemy that out-does humans both in number, creepiness, and sheer bizarreness: the insect.
Because insects can just fly or crawl to the leaves of the conifer, how tall they are doesn’t matter. Pine butterflies, pine sawflies, and pine needle weevils all feast on those string greens we find so cheek puckering.
Insects are nothing new to the conifer of course, they were around since the dinosaurs too. They’re part of the reason the trees’ seeds are so protected in armored, grenade-like death cones (though some of that pointy pain is probably geared toward deterring bird and squirrel type creatures).
Unphazed by the meteor, the insects kept on planticiding. So though evolving height was off the table, the plants’ toxicity has diversified into tens of thousands of varieties.
All conifers make a resin and most of that resin is made from a chemical called terpene. Trees ooze this viscous liquid throughout their leaves and wood, so that should any beetle decide to burrow in, the ooze will trap and kill the insect. Some are so copiously endowed that we humans tap them to make turpentine (of paint thinner fame). Mmm, turpentine. “You gonna eat that?” said no human to an insect ever.
Okay, But Would It Really Kill You?
How toxic, you ask? Surely, since you’ve had pine tea (8 parts sugar to one part needle), it must be fine? Well:
- Eating of the ponderosa pine can induce abortions in pregnant cattle. Cuz that’s something someone found out.
- Eating just three seeds of the Yew berry can kill you in hours, sometimes without any symptoms! However, the flesh of the berry is fine. So go ahead and add that appetizer to the puffer fish entrée.
- The Norfolk pine can cause “vomiting and depression in dogs and cats.” Kind of a chicken and the egg there though. I’d get depressed too if you kept feeding me trees just to see what would happen.
So hippies, tea carefully.
For those of you wondering, what about goats? My answer is this: While goats have been known to eat conifers, it’s only the domesticated goats that have been bred to tolerate such awkward and sour fare. Goat’s wild ancestor the ibex, does not partake.
Deer and rabbits also have been known to eat new shoots of needles, as those haven’t developed the acidic taste of their older, darker needled kin, but again, it’s not a major food source.
Photos are in the public domain or taken by me except: